Why are we fascinated with hearing bad news and observing bloody scenes of catastrophies? Why are we keen on watching scary movies and getting terrified by them? Why are young people addicted to violent video games and lock themselves up in their rooms? In one sentence, how does the topic of death shape popular culture?
The truth is that death not only affects modern culture, it also originated every single human culture in history. Death, its awareness and its denial, is single-handedly responsible for every commonly shared social custom, belief and ideology we refer to as culture, including but not restricted to religion, politics, mythology, sports, arts and entertainment.
There is no time to discuss how and why this happened, but in my video titled “Culture: the secular religion” you can learn more. For here, let it be enough, that the main function of culture is to create an artificial meaning for the life of the members of a given society, in which they can feel like heroes conquering death and achieving lasting significance, sometimes even immortality.
We are surrounded by death in everyday life yet we hardly ever think that we could be the next murder victim in the evening news. Why is it that only bad news is news? Why don’t they feature childbirths, celebrations and the merrier side of life? Why can it be that the bigger and more dramatic a catastrophy is, the more we find it interesting?
This strange attraction to sensationalized gore has three different reasons but all of them are connected to death. The first one is quite obvious: learning about dangerous people, places or situations helps us steer clear of the physical threat they pose. The second, not so manifest advantage of tragedies around us is that they help us appreciate our own lives better, and even makes us more careful and thoughtful.
But the biggest reason is also the most obscure. Even though it may not be explicitly clear to us, we are mainly interested in other people’s deaths because we can feel a huge relief that it didn’t happen to us. We can subconsciously think to ourselves: yes, death is real, but look at me, I’m still alive. Not me, not now: this is the motto.
It’s the very same feeling a soldier remaining the last one standing on a field or a lone survivor on the scene of a plain crash might feel. If somebody else dies but not you, you must be the exception, the chosen one, the special. And if providence saved your life, it must have a plan for you, your life still has meaning, you have a destiny yet to fulfill. Seeing others die strengthens you in life.
We can find a very similar dynamic in the plot of movies, the next area of popular culture I want to touch on. In a typical scenario, the protagonist always escapes the enemy, but if the villain kills off one or more of his accomplices, it makes the threat more tangible, it creates a more serious atmosphere, all-in-all a more thrilling experience.
Certainly, we wish to identify ourselves with the hero, the one who escapes, cheats or defeats death, and lives happily ever after. The worse his chances, the bigger the stakes, and his ultimate victory. He may only fight for his own survival, but if he can also save others, that’s even better. Even sacrificing his own life for the sake of others is worth it, because it makes him immortal and his existence wins purpose in the ultimate scheme of things.
Death is an invisible and abstract concept, but moviegoers need something more tangible. Death is also universal and untouchable, and we can’t hope to defeat it that way. If we want to become heroes, we need to compartmentalize our death anxiety to be able to control and manage it. That’s why both in real life and in movies, we create physical incarnations of death, be it in the image of evil enemies, natural disasters or dangerous ideologies.
We wishfully think that if we can win against this single enemy, we can defeat the entirety of death. In movies, the person who symbolizes death is of course the villain, no matter if he’s called Voldemort, Sauron or Darth Vader. The price we win then is life, implicitly eternal and happy. But if movies were sincere, none of them would have a happy ending, as the hero is finally always defeated by the very thing it seemed to defeat: death.
But if movies were sincere, nobody would watch them. Most people are repelled by truth and interested in fantasy. No matter the genre – horror, thriller or action – almost all stories can be summarized in one sentence: an ordinary individual becoming a hero by conquering death. We wish to see ourselves as these heroes, and immersing ourselves in an imaginary universe helps us identify ourselves with them.
The same line of wishful thinking is even more obvious in the case of video games. They are even better than movies, because you can control your character much more directly, you can become the hero more intimately, you can convince yourself of the illusion more readily. If you mess something up, you simply make death go away by restarting the game, and continue where you left off.
Just like every good movie, every good video game has a compelling plot, interesting missions and realistic villains. The joystick becomes a magic wand in the hands of the players, with which they can fight against and ultimately win over death by the push of a button. This way or that, we all need the feeling of becoming heroes, even if it’s all just a fantasy.
Young people are not interested in violence per se, but the depiction of violence and blood makes the proximity of death more tangible, the illusion more real and the victory more glorious. In conclusion, the main reason death is so prominent in popular culture is that we want to surround ourselves with examples and stories to experience the thrill and relief of escaping death.
If you want to know more about death from a spiritual but down to earth perspective, you should read my book: The Power of Death. Click on the link below, and get it now! I’m deadly serious.